The Latin Invasion in Pop

Thanks to the growing popularity of Latin trap music, Latin pop is having a heyday in the United States.

When “Despacito” by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee hit Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the first primarily Spanish-language song to do 20 years) and saturated the airwaves the year Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, it felt unsettling, but it also seemed like a rebuke of the US government. And, thanks to the growing popularity of Latin trap music, it opened the door for more hits in Spanish, from J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” and Nio Garcia, Darell, and Casper Magico’s “Te Bote” to crossover tracks like Cardi B’s “I Like It” and Camila Cabello and Daddy Yankee’s “Havana Remix” — which is smoother and more electric than the English original. The three albums in Spanish reviewed below represent a range of pop approaches. Ariana Grande has a history of releasing Spanish-language remixes of her singles, so her album (in English) fits in. That she and J Balvin share a formal strategy delights me.

Ozuna: Aura (VP/Dimelo VI/Sony Latin)

Breaking into the international market through a string of irrepressible singles and guest features, Ozuna has achieved an unprecedented level of chart ubiquity for Latin pop, and may be the most successful musician on the planet who doesn’t sing in English. On Aura, the Puerto Rican trap/reggaeton singer-songwriter sustains a bubbly, mid-tempo electropulse for over an hour.

Last year’s Odisea was the warmup, and this album builds on his commercial momentum. One track after another merges and flows, developing a giant, translucently shimmery groove. Minimalist keyboard stabs echo over blocky bits of drum machine, leaving a vast expanse of empty space within which to feel the vibrations. Ozuna sings cheerful singsong melodies that never impede the forward rush; his light, warm, piercing voice soars up and down with the bassline.

The most notable songs are the stylistic departures, as when “Aunque Me Porte Mal” settles into a horn-inflected cumbia rhythm, or when squealing trap keyboards take over “Pasado y Presente” and the sparkly Cardi B collaboration “La Modelo.” Mostly, the album cultivates smooth uniformity to achieve an overall sense of buoyancy. The consistency is so overwhelming that individual songs disappear into the totality of the mounting surge, as hooks stack atop more hooks until they all start sounding the same. Despite Ozuna’s stylistic range, he never shows off, makes a big, attention-grabbing move, or attempts either a schlock ballad or an upbeat banger. Instead of slow and fast tracks, marginal variations on the same swaying, syncopated beat recur with hypnotic regularity. The album’s 20 quiet, echoey electropop tracks fade easily into the background, per the streaming-era listening preference for mood music and lengthy albums. He’s the Drake of Latin pop.

J Balvin: Vibras (Universal Latin)

For almost a decade, J Balvin has been crafting melodic, pop-friendly reggaeton, smoothening what was once an aggressively loud genre. This album is the Colombian singer’s sweetest, densest, and trickiest collection of pop hooks and weird noises.

Balvin possesses an uncanny ability to be pretty and abrasive at the same time. His mode is the glossy, swaying, mid-tempo banger-lite, prevalent on the Spanish- and English-language charts alike. These tightly wound amalgams of drum-clicks and aqueous keyboards float by in relaxed succession. Even compared to the current reggaeton norm, his deadpan singing and spacey hooks share an affectless quality, as if mechanized into blankness.

Yet because he has an ear for tangible textures, and because he enjoys humming a catchy tune, he also includes a startling range of harsh and/or dinky sound effects, heightening and manipulating the music’s flow, including steel drums scraped together; plinky, dissonant xylophones harmonizing with the synthesizer; vocoded groans; and electronic creaks and scratches. Balvin often relies on clashing pitched percussion as much as a Knife album. Meanwhile, the cheer of his melodies coats the album in pop sugar.

“Cuando Tu Quieras” shuffles along over metallic clinks and water droplets, punctuating the chorus with what sounds like a digitally elongated exhalation, looped and artificially modulated to align with the melody. “Machika” is a trap banger whose drum track is repeatedly interrupted by sirens, stomps, and shattered glass, while the keyboard hook sputters oddly, descending in a jerky motion. The hypnotic drone of “Mi Gente,” his biggest hit, is harshest of all, while “Ahora,” which displays a throaty side to his singing over pounding drums and shiny electronic flutes, is catchiest. It’s a smooth listen overall, with lots of small bumps and jitters along the way.

Torn between lilt and crunch, Balvin insists on both, and gets it every which way. Scattering his multifaceted hooks in unexpected corners, he tickles and scratches the ear.

Kany Garcia: Soy Yo (Sony Music Latin)

Renowned as a self-made star as well as an industry songwriter for other Puerto Rican artists, Kany Garcia specializes in a style of cautious writerly craft that’s related to pop-craft, but isn’t the same. Here, she spreads herself thin, trying out different styles in a scattered show of versatility.

Supposedly, the recent prominence of Puerto Rican trap and reggaeton, which favors aggression as well as formalized detachment, has prompted a decline in the traditional singer-songwriter model, the sensitive troubadour airing her feelings. Garcia’s florid style codes as a throwback. Her gift is for intricacy, little melodic flourishes and twists, arranging the guitar figures in just the right way so they comment on the lyrics, but such an approach is antithetical to detachment. Instead, it demands romantic extravagance.

Soy Yo demonstrates her use of eclecticism as a means to craft. Garcia tests out different musical settings and adapts to them, as on the jangle-rock of “Bailemos un Blues,” the reggae-lite of “Sin Tu Carino,” the acoustic jazz guitar of “Sacala a Bailar,” and, naturally, the thundering power balladry of the title track — drums pounding and chords strumming as hard as possible while the piano cascades down like rain. Although she contorts her voice to match each mood, alternately rousing, breathy, or conversational, enunciating lyrics, she often sounds impatient about getting the words out. She sounds more comfortable when the songs demand over-enthusiasm, when she allows herself room to bellow.

Stringed instruments are one unifying factor, whether fluttering ornately or humming quietly in the background. They smoothen the music while cultivating a sense of solemnity. Another unifying factor is grandiosity, vocally and melodically. Such is her sentimentality that even non-ballads sound teary. Tellingly, the most memorable song is the crassest commercial ploy: “Banana Papaya,” a trap duet with Calle 13’s Residente, percolating over high electro-squeals that seize your attention.

Painstakingly subtle, with every note calculated perfectly, Soy Yo demonstrates how delicacy and nuance often produce blandness. Garcia strains inordinately to sound natural.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic)

Until now, Ariana Grande has been the kind of perfunctory pop diva who may or may not score one or two memorable songs per album. She’s often inventive, even surreal thanks to her four-octave voice, but beholden to the generic. On her liveliest, happiest, most exuberantly love-buzzed album, she’s suddenly found music to match her voice, carving out an airy, cozy, summery flavor of electro-R&B all her own.

Beyond joy itself, Sweetener’s crucial advance on her previous work is its sonic sharpness. The usual result when too many producers get in the same room to oversee a megapop album isn’t range but dilution, as the combined product gets watered down into digital paste, no matter how bubbly the singer. For a while, this was Grande’s problem, especially given how her soaring soprano encourages megapop grandiosity, and so only her weirdest singles (such as the garbled, gloriously ungrammatical “Break Free”) registered. But this album is largely a collaboration with Pharrell, who shares with Grande a goofiness and a commitment to sheepish cheer, and the sound they developed together gleams; even the songs without him click into place.

Slinky drums and minimalist keyboard chords merge to create, kinetic motion from spareness, as is becoming necessary in pop these days. Despite the album’s mildly sunny glaze, the electrobounce is so skeletal, so free of overt melodic hooks, that it may take several listens to notice all the little electronic thwocks and blips and plongs pattering along the edges of the beat. This music traces the contours of her voice, her swoops and screams and moments of chatter, plus her many overlapping harmonies and ad-libs. The hooks lie in how she turns her own voice into a multifaceted thing, with crisscrossing layers.

Although the contrast between her breathy singing and the stark pitched percussion effects could sound unsettling, applied to these happy love songs, it’s comforting and delightful. “Successful” playfully zigzags over a synth vacuum as she chirps an ode to her own mastery. On “Sweetener,” creaky electronic squiggles punctuate her party chanting (“Get it! Hit it! Flip it!”) with an adorable eagerness that captures the tone of the whole album.

Occasionally the tempo lags and the rhythm tracks don’t cascade over each other as relentlessly, but Grande has crafted a pop album that hangs together with maximal emotional impact within a minimalist framework. These songs glide elegantly beneath a honeyed surface. They radiate warmth and light.

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